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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

UK foreign secretary shrugs off resignation call after Iran blunder

Boris Johnson says he will seek to visit human rights worker in a Tehran jail after campaigners claim his careless comments saw her threatened with extra years behind bars

Supporters hold a photo of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe during a vigil for the British-Iranian mother, who was jailed in September 2016 for allegedly attempting to overthrow the Iranian government.  Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images
Supporters hold a photo of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe during a vigil for the British-Iranian mother, who was jailed in September 2016 for allegedly attempting to overthrow the Iranian government. Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

Britain's foreign secretary announced plans to visit Iran in the coming weeks as he tried to unravel a blunder that has left a jailed human rights worker facing a longer prison sentence.

Boris Johnson accepted that he "could have been clearer" after he erroneously told MPs that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was training journalists instead of visiting family during a two-week trip that ended in her arrest. Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe is currently serving five years in prison for allegedly plotting to topple the regime, allegations denied by UK supporters and officials.

Mr Johnson's comments last week were seized on by Iranian officials for shedding new light on the reasons that Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe was in the country. She was brought before a court on Saturday and told she could face a longer jail sentence for anti-regime propaganda, despite denials from her employer that she was working in the country.

In a statement, Mr Johnson's office said that he called his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif to say that "it was clear, as it always had been, that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been in Iran on holiday when arrested.

“The Foreign Secretary made clear that the point he had been seeking to make .... was that he condemned the Iranian view that training journalists was a crime, not that he believed Iranian allegations that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been engaged in such activity," according to a statement released on his behalf.

Mr Johnson later told parliament that he would seek to visit her in prison on his visit to Iran. He gave the statement on Tuesday under pressure from Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe's husband Richard who demanded that the foreign secretary say clearly that "she was just there on holiday”.

Iran was accused of taking advantage of Mr Johnson's blunder to potentially extend Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe's detention.

Iran has claimed she has been paid by her current and former employers, the Thomson Reuters Foundation and the BBC, to promote opposition to the regime. The foundation – the charitable arm of the news organisation – said it did not operate in the country.

A senior minister admitted that Mr Johnson had made a mistake after an earlier statement by the foreign secretary failed to retract his comments.

“We all make slips of the tongue. And I think we have to be careful that we are not overreacting to this,” said Liam Fox, the trade secretary. He said that Ms Zaghai-Ratcliffe's detention was “completely unacceptable to the British government” and she should be released.

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Mr Johnson's intervention is another headache for the government of Theresa May, which is grappling to limit the fallout from allegations of sexual harassment by lawmakers, an unauthorised series of meetings by another minister during a holiday to Israel, and the UK's role in tax avoidance detailed by the so-called Paradise Papers.

Campaigners, lawmakers and supporters of the family all criticised Mr Johnson saying that his comments threatened to worsen the plight of a woman suffering from mental and physical problems while in custody.

Emily Thornberry, foreign affairs spokesman of the opposition Labour party, called on Mr Johnson to quit.

"It's a great shame that in seeking to score political points, she's deflecting blame, accountability and responsibility for where it truly lies, with the Iranian regime," Mr Johnson said.

He added that he was told by Mr Zarif that his comments were not linked to Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe's appearance in court on Saturday.

"Mr Johnson made a stupid, careless mistake because he wasn't on top of the detail," according to a leader in London's Evening Standard newspaper, edited by his former cabinet colleague George Osborne.

Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe was first arrested in April 2016 at Tehran airport as she prepared to return to the UK with her two-year-old daughter Gabriella after visiting her parents, her employer said.

She is one of several dual nationals held in Iran on espionage charges. Dual nationals are not recognised by Iran, do not receive consular assistance and often face secret charges in closed-door hearings.

A UN panel of experts said the practice was part of an emerging pattern since the 2015 Iran nuclear detail.